Feeling the Burn
I used to spend every weekend out by the pool, working on my tan. Now I check my body for changing moles or new spots, and call my doctor.
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My name is Patricia McConnico, and I love the sun. Twenty or so years ago, when I was in college, I would spend my summer days baking—by the pool, on the beach, or in a backyard. I even kept a lawn chair in my trunk, just in case. There was something liberating about sitting outside all day doing absolutely nothing aside from reading, sleeping, and chatting with friends. That was part of the attraction. But the real draw was the tan—dark and beautiful. It made me feel good about myself. I thought I looked better, healthier.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was a smart girl—I fancy that I still am—so I knew repeated exposure to the sun would eventually cause wrinkles and sun spots. But, alas, I was young and invincible. It wouldn’t happen to me. Besides, I wore suntan lotion: Hawaiian Tropic Waterproof Dark Tanning Lotion with SPF 4. I was covered.
Apparently, not enough. Today I got two suspicious-looking spots, one on my right shin and the other on my left shoulder blade, biopsied. That should be a big deal, but because I’ve already had nineteen basal cells on my body removed via creams or the knife, it was a fairly routine procedure. What was different about today was that I was the one pointing them out to my dermatologist. I’m afraid they might be melanoma.
Sun damage has been on my brain of late because I’ve been reading quite a lot about it online and in the papers. House Bill 1310 proposes that a person younger than eighteen cannot use a tanning device unless the facility receives written permission from the person’s physician or the person’s parent or legal guardian remains at the tanning facility while the person uses the device. Texas isn’t the only state considering restrictions or amending restrictions. Many bills are up for vote, and many laws are already in place. Why is this on the radar of our state legislators? According to reliable data, including information from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), sunbed tanning among young people has been linked to melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer. And approximately 2.3 million teenagers visit a tanning salon at least once year.
I spent a fair amount of my time at the University of Texas at a tanning salon on the Drag. Back then, you couldn’t spend more than an hour a day in a tanning bed. Somehow, I was able to make it to my 8:00 a.m. tanning sessions but never my eight o’clock classes. And, the appointments had to be early so the afternoons could be devoted to reading homework by the pool, of course. Why both? The base tan—for me the point in which my sunburn turned into a tan—was absolutely necessary to achieve that dark golden glow. No one wanted that orange tone from the salon. I’d been called on that at a Christmas party during the winter break when I was a freshman.
I was a regular at the tanning salon for a few years but finally called it quits after talking to one of my best friends. She said she couldn’t stand that smell any longer, that smell of burning hair and skin. That tanning salon smell. The one you rushed home to wash away with soap and water. And she was right. There was something inherently wrong. It wasn’t natural. So I stopped.
But my devotion to the real sun went beyond college and into my late twenties. Every weekend, weather permitting, I was out by the pool. I’d do two or three hours Saturday and Sunday and then eat lunch, clean up, and head out for the day. Actually, I had cut down my solar intake considerably. It was nice getting to know my neighbors. One summer I became friends with a guy I saw regularly at the pool at my apartment complex. He was in sales, and I was back in school studying journalism. But after a while, he stopped coming around. I found out a few weeks later that he was a homeless person living at the pool and had been forced to leave the property.
Things started to change after my first basal cell, when I was 32. Okay. I did still sit in the sun, but for not as long. When I had to get seven spots cut out at one time, after the birth of my daughter, that’s when I knew I had a terrible problem. The scars don’t look pretty or healthy at all, especially the long one on my forehead. I threw out the lawn chair. Instead, I would read a book outdoors in shorts and a tank, thinking that I wasn’t really sunbathing since I didn’t have a swimsuit on. But who was I fooling? Eventually, it got to the point where I began to feel guilty. So I quit.
Ten years later, I still wish I could spend the day at the beach soaking in some rays. But I don’t. I put sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher on every day. I lather 50 all over my daughter and son every morning—rain or shine (you can still get sun when it is overcast). I check my body for changing moles or new spots. And I call my doctor and wait for test results.